Early in 2002, gathered around a table in one of the plush meeting rooms at the colonial Polana Hotel in Maputo, Mozambique, a group of African higher education spec ialists discussed the future of the African university. They were brought together by the Partnership for Higher Education in Africa to a 'convening' - an open explorative discussion. The primary purpose of the meeting was for the experts to help the partnership of US foundations to think strategically about grant-making interventions to build African higher education.
During the discussions it became clear to a few of us that there wasn't quite a framework, a common language, a common set of definitions that allowed for a coherent conversation about higher education on the continent. For instance, it was next to impossible to produce a common understanding of faculty-to-student ratios, of teaching loads, of throughput rates and so on.
For me at least - long before any formal or informal discussions with Nico Cloete, the director of the Centre for Higher Education (CHET) in South Africa, and others - that was the start of what I perceived as a continent-wide performance indicator project. It led shortly afterwards to a small Ford Foundation grant to CHET for such a research project.
Some time in 2004, in a less congenial room in the Libyan-owned Golden Tulip Hotel in Accra, a group including Nico Cloete, Aki Sawyerr (who was secretary-general of the Association of African Universities at the time), George Subotsky from the University of the Western Cape and I engaged over two to three days in a more wide-ranging discussion to address two matters: the creation of a higher education leadership development programme, and the shape of a programme of research activities that would probe more deeply into the functioning of African higher education and feed into the leadership development programme.
It was out of the latter that the HERANA project evolved. It has now produced a very substantial body of work.
The HERANA Synthesis Report
The HERANA Synthesis Report on Universities and Economic Development in Africa is well worth reading. Three factors were determined as crucial to the emergence of this role. They are:
None of these are new - they have all been discussed in detail in the past. What is somewhat new here is the fact that the considerations in this book are underpinned by various kinds of research.
Together with a host of other 'parameters' these three factors are brought into coherent focus as elements fundamental to understanding why some universities are more integrated than others in building knowledge economies and more generally knowledge societies.
Instead of looking at higher education systems, the authors decided to research a set of 'flagship' universities in eight African countries: University of Botswana, University of Ghana, University of Nairobi in Kenya, University of Mauritius, Eduardo Mondlane University in Mozambique, Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in South Africa, University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania and Makerere University in Uganda.
South Africa's 'flagship' University of Cape Town was also considered, and was included in some aspects of the research, but for comparative reasons it was not deemed to be a sensible member of this cohort of institutions.
At the heart of this analysis is that universities and higher education systems are expected to play a direct and sustained role in the building of knowledge economies.
As a means to establish a kind of benchmark against which to think of the performance of a group of what the authors call African 'flagship' universities, they chose three global examples - South Korea, Finland and the state of North Carolina in the United States. All three are deemed to be highly successful in terms of higher education being integrated into an overarching strategy to build knowledge economies.
This is an important study, even though a number of studies have been published that address a similar theme - including a number of World Bank interventions.
The difference is twofold. The first is that this HERANA set of studies helps to evolve a way of measuring inputs and outputs and therefore a way of comparing institutions in a coherent manner. The second is that the study also depends on in-depth interviews, engagements, consultations and meetings. It is rooted.
The study sought evidence of a functioning 'pact' among government, universities and core socio-economic actors about the nature of the role of universities in development. Basically, it found no evidence in all the instances studied of what it calls a 'development model'. Notions of the knowledge economy were restricted to particular ministries - there was no evidence of a systemic approach.
How does this play itself out? Three manifestations of the non-existence of a 'pact' or the existence of a partial one were observed: a tension around institutional autonomy and engagement, a tension between an instrumentalist notion of the university versus a knowledge-producing one, and the failure of universities to understand the implications of an 'engine of development' framework for thinking about what they do in society.
At the heart of the matter of course is the nature and strength of institutional academic cores. Whether the university is located within a well-functioning national system of innovation or whether it is a stand-alone, traditional institution, the study assumes that its contribution to development is through the enterprise of knowledge production.
HERANA identified eight key performance indicators divided into 'input' and 'output' indicators. They too are all well known - no surprises.
The 'input' indicators are: enrolments in science, engineering and technology (SET) programmes; postgraduate enrolments; the academic staff-to-student ratio; the proportion of academic staff with doctorates; and research funding per academic. The 'output' indicators are graduation rates in the SET areas, and knowledge production measured through the production of doctoral graduates and publications in ISI journals.
How did the universities in the study perform on the basis of these indicators?
Group 1: Only Cape Town was strong on all input and output ratings.
Group 2: Mauritius, Makerere and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan had medium ratings on both input and output indicators.
Group 3: Dar es Salaam and Nairobi had medium ratings on all input indicators but were weak on the output side.
Group 4: Botswana, Ghana and Eduardo Mondlane had weak ratings on both input and output indicators.
Coordination and connectedness was the third broad perceived requirement - the existence of a knowledge policy framework that builds the capacity of a nation to participate competitively in the knowledge economy. Different sorts of policies are required: for national coordination, for national implementation, connectedness with external stakeholders and so on.
These three factors represent a powerful set of lenses through which to understand why it is that African higher education systems, including that of South Africa, have yet to drive the kinds of knowledge enterprises that societies require to make the transition into knowledge economies.
What is missing
It does seem to me, however, that there are other much more systemic issues that the research does not focus on and which are perhaps more central to the challenges posed in the HERANA study, and some of these are listed below.
1. The first of these is the very low overall participation rates in post-school education in the societies in which these universities are embedded, in comparison with other societies that are connected to the knowledge economy. For instance, the South Korean higher education participation rate of 18- to 24-year-olds now exceeds 90%.
So here in my view is a key question: is it necessary to have much broader participation rates in society for individual flagship universities to be effective as players in the knowledge economy? Is it possible to develop big players in the knowledge business when the pipeline of students is so small - especially as this would be so fundamental for the development of sustainable postgraduate and research programmes?
2. The second issue, and this is related to the participation rate, is that questions have to be asked about the size of the system - the number and types of institutions. One of the challenges that face these flagship universities is that they are pulled in different directions because of the need for diverse higher education programmes. In other words, it is impossible to think about differentiated systems when the systems are so small.
What these two considerations point towards is that it is not very useful or helpful to understand the role of 'flagship' universities outside of the systems in which they are embedded.
3. The third is the nature and structure of the labour market and its capacity to absorb the kinds of human resources that would be produced by the flagship universities if the recommendations of the report were followed. And so we would have to ask whether there is sufficient absorptive capacity locally for increased outputs of SET graduates and massively expanded postgraduate programmes, both of which are posited by the report as fundamental to the development of universities that contribute to the development of knowledge economies.
4. The fourth consideration is that there does not appear to be any thought given to the development of a regional approach instead of a national approach. Would the picture be the same if the higher education systems of Southern Africa were taken together as a single system? In terms of building knowledge economies it may be much more reasonable to think of the role of higher education sans frontiers in the context that there are, for instance, Southern African Development Community discussions under way for the development of an integrated economy.
5. The strength and well-being of the academic core is a fundamental requirement. There is no question about this. However, what are the key performance indicators of such well-being? And how do they respond to the needs of the labour market? Can the performance indicators be developed in abstraction from the needs of the local economy?
This may be thought of as a 'chicken and egg' scenario. The study may be able to recognise from global experience what the academic core should look like but this may not be what the economy requires now. And so at best it may be aspirational.
While this relates again to the nature of the labour market, it also relates to the conditions that prevail in the systems of higher education within which the 'flagships' are embedded - to understand the capacity to differentiate. There may be other solutions.
Would it be possible, for instance, for the flagship universities to build strategic partnerships for the offering of joint doctoral programmes with institutions in other parts of the world? In other words, can higher education systems outsource the postgraduate training as a way to generate the kinds of outputs required?
6. The study does not take into account the severe organic crisis being faced by African higher education - exemplified best, as the study points out, by the steady decline in expenditure per full-time equivalent student between 1980 and 2009. This organic crisis extends beyond the steady decline in spending. It relates also to political instability and crises in democracy.
These are few considerations that arise and may be useful to engage with.
All in all, I think that the study makes a major contribution to understanding the challenges facing African higher education systems as they try to make connection with the aspirations of the societies in which they are embedded.
The critical factor in all of this is the smallness of the size of the systems. Is it possible in such a context for the flagship universities to play the kind of role that the report indicates for them if they are to be 'engines of development'.
* Professor Ahmed C Bawa is vice-chancellor and principal of the Durban University of Technology in South Africa. A theoretical physicist, Bawa was previously at Hunter College in the US and a member of the doctoral faculty in the Graduate Center at City University of New York. For nine years he was deputy vice-chancellor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, and he also served as programme officer for higher education in Africa for the Ford Foundation. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of South Africa and of the Academy of Science of South Africa, and has served on numerous South African and international advisory boards.
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